Something about me – my writing life:
I was never any good at writing at school – or rather, I never actually did any of it. I was always a science and maths kid, and whenever the teacher asked us to write an essay my mind went blank. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to write – my grammar was okay – I simply couldn’t think of anything to write about and didn’t understand how and why anyone else would just make things up. Viewed in hindsight it was partly shyness (not wanting to share my thoughts with others) and also a pure science mindset – give me a problem to fix or a puzzle to solve and I’ll do it, but create something new myself? I believe the education treadmill made it difficult for me to do that, something writing has improved to an extent.
The fact that we didn’t have many books at home didn’t help (I don’t think either of my parents have ever read a novel in their lives). But I did get into reading a little fiction in my teens and twenties. Then I got out of it because nothing really grabbed me.
After giving up reading in my twenties I had this mad idea that if nobody else was writing the sort of fiction I wanted to read then I’d damn well write it myself. It took up most of my spare time for almost two years, and the result was awful. Those were the days when you had to print the first three chapters out and send them with covering letters to agents. Needless to say I got nowhere and gave up, concluding writing wasn’t for me.
In my forties I had what could be described as an epiphany, when I decided I would write fiction purely for my own enjoyment. Where did that decision come from? I really, honestly don’t know. I’d just been through a very hectic part of my life, finally had some spare time, and am not the sort of person to spend every waking hour sitting in front of the TV when I get the chance; I prefer to do something constructive. So I was kicking my heels trying to find ‘my next project’.
Then I read a story in a magazine that resonated with me, and it made me think that perhaps I too had something to say. So I just started scribbling that story out, and got a buzz from it. And I knew from my aborted attempt many years before that I had the stamina to write. But I decided to start from the bottom up – to learn how to do it properly. I completed a few courses, read widely, and practiced, practiced, practiced – on short stories at first. And guess what? If you do something in earnest for long enough, you eventually get passably good at it.
Soon after that I had a stroke of luck. After I’d finished my first novel, Matchbox Memories, and while I was hawking it around agents, Amazon Kindle came along. I took the plunge and – as they say in the best jokes about sprained necks – I’ve never looked back since.
Since the success of my Historical novels I’ve decided to lean in that direction – although I do like writing in other genres too. I still like short stories, but they aren’t as commercially viable as novels, which I’ve always thought is a shame. But novels are okay; there’s a natural length of time to be in the company of a bunch of characters that sits well with me; after six months or so you’ve had long enough to get to know people but also a bit tired of them and want to move on.
Here’s a close-up of a bee to break things up a bit:
In my writing guise I’ve always felt slightly ashamed of not being a great childhood reader – but that was mainly because of lack of opportunity – there were hardly any books in the house. In my teens I hated the books I had to read for school exams, but I read a lot of those Pan and Fontana books of horror short stories with lurid, tacky artwork on the cover (the sort that would probably be banned today for being sexist). From there I progressed to reading Stephen King, James Herbert, Shaun Hutson and the likes. Then I discovered Tom Sharpe and read everything he had written. I also read a few early Ben Elton books, some Spike Milligan, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and lots of TV script books like Fawlty Towers.
Then something happened to me. I just got tired of reading fiction and gave it up for about twenty years, preferring to read non-fiction, usually biographies, travelogues, true crime and comedy sketch books. My favourites were the Bill Bryson travel books, although my actual favourite book was The Railway Man by Eric Lomax.
Roll forward those twenty years, to when I decided I wanted to learn to write, and I started reading all the classics you are ‘supposed to’ read, and still wasn’t that impressed with them. The same is true of many blockbusters.
But my wife bought me the hardback of Stephen King’s Full Dark No Stars when it came out and that really got me back into reading fiction for pleasure. ‘Big Driver’ from that book is one of my favourite stories. Then I read The Green Mile – still the best book ever for me. And guess what? Reading what I love to read has taught me more about writing than anything. For my money I’m happy to consider any genre, time or place, it’s all about characters and quality of writing.
I have to say I still go through phases – I still like reading non-fiction and recently got back into Spike Milligan. And I probably give up on more books than I finish – even a few Stephen King novels.
And then there’s the Indie revolution. Although I now have a publishing contract with Lake Union Publishing, I still consider myself something of an Indie – a hybrid in modern parlance. I reading a few of my Indie peers’ books and they can be top-drawer stuff. If you like horrors/thrillers read pretty much anything by David Haynes, or for quirky comedy try ‘Celluloid’ by Holly Curtis. (Note that many other excellent independent writers are available).